If you follow Highway 395 North, the wheat fields give way and rise up to rocky hills, jutting out of the landscape among old timbers. In early summer, the valley writhes in green, growing tall and wild, while briar patches take over sloping ridges along the lake. Old train tracks run along the highway, coming close to the road in some places, before receding back into the woods. There was a time when five or six trains came through a day, but now only one trudges through that landscape and even then, in the dead of night. And only one bus can take you out that far north, United 67 out of Spokane, once a week coming up through Deer Park, Colville, and into Stevens County.
The Young Man sat on the back of the bus, his face turned from the window. He closed his eyes and pressed his head against the glass, listening to the constant drone of the engine. The vibration on the glass shook his head slightly. In time, the bus jostled and he opened his eyes to see his breath fogging the window glass slowly, he blew gently on it and watched the fog disappear. He exhaled on the window again, but this time, raised a finger and drew on the window the shape of a boy. It was a simple drawing, the kind a child would make. Next to it, he began to draw a stick figure dog. He only got halfway, when he stopped, sensing something other than himself.
The woman across the aisle was staring. She had a book, a worn out paperback, her finger between pages. She smiled at him. She looked pretty.
“That’s nice, your drawing.”
“I think so. Is it supposed to be you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is the dog his?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
She laughed, clean and clear.
“Where are you headed?” He asked her.
“All the way to the end. I’m visiting my sister, she just had a child.”
“Boy or a girl?”
“A girl. Lillian.”
Her smile faded, slightly. “It’s really her blessing…not mine.”
A silence before she spoke again. “Are you visiting family?”
The Young Man nodded. “Going home.”
“It’s my father he…”
“Is he ill?”
The Young Man looked away. “Yeah…he’s real sick.”
“I’m sorry. It’s brave of you to see him like this, I…know it can be hard.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah.”
“I hope he gets better.”
The woman picked up her book again. “He’s gone.”
“The boy and his dog. They’re gone.”
The Young Man turned to the window, the figures had faded, leaving only a trace of oil. He looked back at the woman, but she was already turned away, reading again. He lay back in his seat, looking out the large front window of the bus. Trees streaked by and at certain turns, he was able to see, in the distance, dark blue mountains, winding up to the sky. Some were still capped with snow and looking out at those lonely peaks, The Young Man slept.
In the dream, he was running. It was night, the sky flooded with stars. He was small, young, about eight or nine. He was sprinting through fields, the tall grass scratching at his bare skin. Next to him, low, a shadow bounced alongside and he was not afraid. He began to laugh and from just next to him, there came a howling out of the darkness.
Someone was shaking him.
His eyes were clouded. The bus, dim.
“What? What is it?”
“This is your stop.” The Driver looked down at him, wearily. All was quiet.
“Where are we?” He rubbed his eyes. He didn’t feel rested.
“Your stop. End of the line.”
He looked around, The Woman and her book were gone. “There was a woman here,” he said for some reason. The Driver sighed and ran a hand along his jaw. “You and I are the only one’s left. End of the line.” It was late afternoon and through the open door of the bus, a warm breeze was blowing. There was no one on the streets.
The Young Man stood and hobbled off on stiff legs, past The Driver, who only grunted.
Outside, he stretched and it felt good. He walked on the sidewalk until there was none, always to the north. The town was silent as he moved down back alleys and dirt paths. Once, a dog barked nearby, causing him to jump, he looked all around, but could not discern where it had come from and it did not come again.
The Young Man took the old Rockford road, over the narrow stone bridge and out into the fields, where the pavement gave way to a dust dirt road. Large and lonely farm equipment slung water in deep concentric circles, creating little rainbows over the crops.
After a time, at the sight of the great oak tree, he paused, slowed, and eventually stopped. Beyond, at the end of the rough and winding driveway, tucked amongst the old growth, was the home he grew up in. Inside that was a large box made of wood. And within that lay someone he had not seen in many years. Somewhere at the end of that road, lay the body of his father.
“Shit,” he said and forced himself to move on up the driveway.
The house stood as it always had and it was so near to the image The Young Man had built in his mind, he was taken aback. The same low vines hung over the porch, where the rusty swing rocked without any push. The same flowers from his youth grew to either side of the pathway, wild violets that no one could remember planting. The paint was just as peeled as he remembered, in all the same places, that familiar broken, twisted pattern he had traced all those years ago.
By the front porch, in the strip of lawn that ran along the house, he saw a smaller house, painted that same brick color of red, and The Young Man thought of Blue and for a moment believed that, at any moment, the old dog would somehow emerge from the darkness of the little structure and rear his head up, before hobbling over as best he could. But the moment passed and The Young Man mounted the steps.
Before he could decide whether to knock or simply enter, the door opened and his mother emerged. “You’ve been smoking.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
“Alright then, I was.”
“Told you.” They stared at each other for a tense moment, before The Mother’s face broke into a weathered smile, they embraced and she pulled him inside “You best come in.”
The Young Man saw that his mother did not move the same and, following her down the hallway, he was struck by her appearance. He had not known yet that people could become so visibly worn. For the first time, he realized that he was watching someone grow old. She led him into the parlor, then turned, “You got in early. You should sit down.”
He sat his bag down by the cold fireplace. “Been sitting all day.”
“How was the bus?” She began tidying up.
“Were you able to sleep at all?”
“Good. And you were able to get the time off?”
“Of course, no problem.”
“How’s your…friend? Jacob?”
He looked down. “Jared.”
“Jared.” She looked away.
“I don’t know. He’s fine, but…I don’t know.”
“Oh. Are you two not…?” She groped for the right words.
“Sit down, I’ll make some tea.” She turned to go.
“Mom, wait…we should talk.”
“We are talking.”
“About Dad.” She said nothing, frozen at the doorway. “Mom?”
“He’s gone.” She looked around for a moment then, as if she might find him somewhere in the room. Then she turned her head sharply and left. If some strength came from speaking the truth, The Young Man did not see it then in her.
He sat and gave furtive glances around the room, his eyes lingering over his father’s trophies. A stuffed turkey, fat and stretched into mock flight hung above the mantle. The head of a deer, its pointed antlers and black-bead eyes collecting dust on the far wall. On the table next to him, a stuffed Pheasant, looking nearly alive. Next to it was a photo of his father and Blue, the bird in his mouth. They both looked so young. They both looked happy and The Young Man wondered if the thought of keeping the old dog around in the parlor, had occurred to his father. But there had been no body.
After a time, his mother returned. The tea was hot and too strong and just perfect. When he was almost finished, he asked about his father.
“You can see him, if you like.” She spoke without looking at him.
“For the service tomorrow, like he wanted. They dropped him off this afternoon. He’s in the back.”
“How did it…?”
She shrugged. “We knew it was coming for a while.”
She thought for a moment. “What day is today?”
“Three days…I think. It was in the morning.”
“Have you gotten any sleep since then?”
“Here and there. I haven’t slept without him in…” She took a long drink of her tea.
“Is there anything that needs to be done?”
“It can wait until tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner. I wanted to see him before…”
“He would have liked that.”
The Young Man shifted uncomfortably. “You understand, right? That I couldn’t-”
“It doesn’t matter, now.”
“I wanted to-”
“But you didn’t.” She looked him in the eyes now. “He loved you.”
“Did he say that? To you? Because I don’t know if he ever said it to me.”
“You know he loved you.”
“I guess…I guess I just thought he and I would have… time. To work stuff out.”
“You had time.”
“I didn’t want to see him dying.”
“Some of us didn’t have that option.”
“Well, I’m sorry!”
She laughed at that, not a cruel laugh, but one of genuine surprise and he was struck by its honesty. “Well, that’s fine. Fine. But I don’t want your apology…I don’t need it. I love you. You are the last thing on earth that I have, but I don’t need it. It’s been too much already. If you have something to say, something you need to say, say it to him yourself.” She turned to look out of the front window. The Young Man stood up.
“He’s in back?”
“How’s he look?”
“Oh, they fixed him up real nice.”
“I think I’ll go see him.”
“Alright.” She looked up at him, took his hand and squeezed it. “It’s good to have you home.” The Young Man did his best to smile. He let go of her hand and made his way to the back of the house, around every corner recognizing something old and forgotten.
When he finally made it to the oldest part of the house, now little more than a mud room, he stopped and looked in at the clean pine box that lay on the old dining table, the one his grandfather had built. It was open, the lid askew, but still he could not see inside.
Stepping forward, his father came partly into view, and with another he could see his face. A face he had almost forgotten. It was tragic, impossible, and repulsive. It was sad. And taking another step, he noticed the size the coffin had changed, it seemed now too small. Too small for a man’s life. And The Young Man felt like everything his father owned should be put in the box with him. All of his papers and books, his bottle and anger, his trinkets and memories and anything else he had taken and shaped by his own design. .
The Young Man watched his father’s corpse, embalmed and made up to look alive.
He searched for a fond memory of his father, untarnished by later arguments and was surprised when he found one: When he was just a boy, his father would take him onto his lap and The Boy would watch the smoke from his father’s pipe swirling around the room and his father would tell him jokes he was too young to understand, but he would laugh anyway, so that Dad would laugh. And together, with the sound of the radio and his mother sighing at them, they made something that The Young Man did not remember having: A normal childhood. He smiled and though no one could hear him, under his breath he muttered an apology.
He found his mother in the kitchen, hovering over the stove. “What are you making?”
“Dinner.” She pulled out some steak.
“You don’t have to cook tonight.”
She laughed, that same honest bark. “If you wanted to stop me cooking for you, you should have told me twenty years ago.” She smiled and so did he.
“Mom, can I ask you a question?”
She nodded keeping her attention on the stove.
“Do you remember Blue?”
She paused a moment before answering. “Of course. How could I forget. I see that old dog house every morning.” She pointed out the window with the tip of a knife. “Here, you can help.” The Young Man took the blade from her and took her place at the window, looking out at the shelter. She handed him some potatoes. “You know, every couple years, your Dad would talk about getting another dog, start hunting again. But he never did.”
He began chopping. “What exactly happened to Blue that made him limp like that? I know he was hurt, but…”
The Mother stirred as she spoke. “That dog was never was quite the same after the accident. You were probably too young to remember, but time was your dad and Blue never spent a weekend apart. He loved that dog. No, here, like this.” She took the knife from his hands and quickly cubed the potato. “It’s easier this way.” She handed the knife back and began working on the strips of beef. “Well, one day, he come home, swerving into the driveway, you couldn’t have been three yet, I remember running out with you in my arms. I’d never seen your father so upset.”
“I don’t remember…maybe that dumb old dog wasn’t listening, or maybe your dad had one too many and saw something that wasn’t there, but he filled that dog’s back leg with buck shot. Only time he ever took an animal to a vet. Drove 40 miles to Colville, had to call Marty Reyes on his day off.” She looked up, “It took thirty-two stitches to patch that hound up. Your dad stayed up with him all night, and him a-howling. They didn’t go out again after that.” The meat sizzled as she lay it in the pan. “It about killed that dog to be left behind. You could hear him howling from Barstow. After that, he became yours.”
“When I turned five Dad made me take care of him.”
“You loved that dog.”
He set down the knife. “What happened to Blue?”
She did not turn. “He died.”
“You told me he was gone, but not how it happened.”
“…you know those old dogs, he had trouble just getting around. I guess one day he just couldn’t keep going.” She poured the vegetables into the pot with a hiss and began to dice a small onion.
“Dad didn’t take him to the vet again?”
“No. Sometimes an animal’s just old. Let’s not talk about death anymore.”
“Did you bury him?”
“Your father took care of it.” She began chopping faster.
“You told me, when I was nine, that you had to take him away. You said there was a farm. Where they take old dogs, one’s that had been hurt.”
She stopped and turned to her son. “I was trying to protect you.”
“I know. But I thought that there really was such a place, for a long time. Wasn’t until middle school I found out that’s what every parent tells their kid when the dog doesn’t come home.”
She turned back to her work. “It’s a nice thought.”
“What did Dad do with him?”
She sighed, then shook her head. “He took him out to the old house and took care of it.”
“The old house?”
“The farmhouse, back over the hill, you used to play out there as a boy.”
“What happened to it?”
“Once the roof started caving in, we stopped you going out there, haven’t seen it in years.”
“You think it’s still there?”
“Part of it, maybe. I’m not sure, it was built back before the war, your great-grandfather and his brothers.”
“Do you know if he buried Blue out there?”
“Alright.” The Young Man turned to the door.
“You’re not going out there.”
“I’ll be back before dinner.”
“Not sure what you expect to find in this light.”
“We shall see what we shall see.”
“That old house’s been sinking into the ground for thirty years. Be careful”
“It’ll be dark soon, you don’t want to be stumbling around out there once it gets dark.”
“Get yourself killed.”
He kissed her on the cheek, “I’ll be back.”
He moved into the backyard, overgrown and untended. He looked for the place where the swing set had been, but could not discern it from the rest of the lawn. An old fence separated the yard from the narrow meadow that led up into densely forested hills. He gave the clothesline a pluck as he ducked underneath, just to hear the familiar note. He opened the gate, and did not bother to latch it shut. Once there was a path over the hill, but it had become lost to the years. Even so, in the fading light, it was not hard going. The forest wrapped around him and he could hear its sounds.
Under the dark canopy, he stumbled at times over stones and roots and sweat began to form on his brow and under his shirt. His breath became labored, but the movement felt good. Once he was surrounded by the forest and the trees drew close to him, he stopped and let out a deep breath. Twigs and leaves crunched underneath his feet and he could feel his heart in his chest. The night will be cool, he thought and he wanted to stay out there.
By the time he reached the top, he was breathing heavily. Looking down the way he had come, if he shifted his head, could make out, through the trees, dim light coming from his house. Down the other side there was nothing. He frowned, it should have been there. He scanned amongst the shadows, but could make out nothing distinct in the twilight. He squinted and wiped his brow, and taking a step forward, the world began to spin. The Young Man put an arm out to catch himself and he bent over by an old pine tree and vomited, until his stomach was empty. He closed his eyes and took several, deep breaths. It would be alright. He would catch his breath and find his way home, he would-
A dog barked, somewhere close by.
His eyes snapped open and he turned. There were lights at the bottom of the hill. Warm, soft, golden light and at first, he thought he had gotten turned around and was looking down at his own home, but no. This house was smaller, closer, right at the foot of the hill. He took a step towards it and then another, moving down the slope carefully.
The house was built in a large clearing and had a wide yard, its grass cut short. The shades were drawn in the house, but the lights were on in every room. It seemed very old, but the paint had not peeled and no part was in disrepair. As he got closer, he was able to make out other buildings in the clearing, a stable and stie, a chicken coop, and far off next to the woods, a shed with double doors. He heard horses whinnying and there were a group of chickens scratching about in their pen. He saw no people.
The Young Man stayed in the trees, staring. He knew this was the old farmhouse and as he took one step towards it, onto the lawn, he heard the bark again, closer. He looked around and even in the fading light, he recognized Blue, coming around the corner of the stable. The dog stopped for a moment when he first saw him, his tail suspended, before giving another bark, this one different, excited. Then the animal bounded towards him, and leaping, knocking The Young Man to the ground. He laughed as Blue licked his face, his tail wagging.
“Okay! Okay, boy! Down! Down!” And the smile did not fade from his lips as he sat up, and the dog moved to his side, panting. “What happened to you boy?” The dog just looked at him happily and put a paw onto his lap, letting it rest there. He scratched the dog behind the ears and shook it’s fur, bringing Blue’s head close to his, the dog smelled like a summer night, dirty and wild and free.
He had lost weight, The Young Man remembered him pudgy and limp, his back leg gnarled and scarred. But now, Blue bounced around him like he’d never seen. He gave the dog’s back leg a scratch, and he lapped at his neck.
“God, I missed you boy.” He stood and the dog jumped up around him, and with a bark, they began to run around the far side of the yard, lost in discovery. He cackled and shouted, Blue yelped and growled as they wrestled each other to the ground. And when he came up from the grass with a stick, the dog chased after him as he ran in wider and wider circles, before letting the stick fly out to the far side of the yard and Blue took off to retrieve it.
And for a few minutes The Young Man felt like a boy again and could see the brightest things in his life as impermeable and untouchable. The dog too, returning with the stick, seemed aware of the moment and it’s particular magic.
Both were breathing heavily, having a very good time, when a bell rang from the house. Both of them looked up at the same time and then to each other. A man emerged onto the back porch of the house, about 30 yards away and shouted.
“Come and get it!”
Other dogs were running up to the porch and Blue was beside himself, it was dinner time. The dog moved to race to the porch, only getting a few steps, before turning back to The Young Man, who had not moved. The dog looked up at him quizzically, then to the others.
The Young Man sighed at the dog. He could see the silhouette of a man, tall and broad, looking out into the yard, towards them. The small pack of dogs who had gathered around the porch were snatching at their bowls. He and the dog looked at each other. The Man’s voice came again.
“Blue! Come on now!”
The dog looked up at him sadly.
“It’s okay, boy. You can go.”
Blue held the gaze, perhaps asking if The Young Man was sure, whether or not he could follow.
“I love you boy.”
The dog gave a low whine in return and then a high bark, before spinning around and dashing off to the porch. The Young Man watched the dog become swallowed up in his pack. He looked up at The Man, who was still staring out towards him. The Man put a hand up to block the light of the porch, as if to see better and he even took a step forward. For a second, The Man on the porch looked just like his father, or perhaps some version of him…or maybe it was just a trick of the light. After a moment, The Man dropped his hand and turned back to the dogs. The Young Man watched for a few seconds more, before retreating back into the woods. At the top of the hill he gave one last glance down at the homestead.
He walked home quickly, stumbling down the hill. Above him, the stars reached out, pinpoints of light, touching him coldly. And inside, The Young Man felt almost whole.